Hitchcock, class, and noir

Homer B. Pettey

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

2 Scopus citations


Despite our public embrace of political and judicial equality, in individual perception and understanding – much of which we refrain from publicizing – we arrange things vertically and insist on crucial differences in value.… It's as if in our heart of hearts we don't want agglomerations but distinctions. Analysis and separation we find interesting, synthesis boring. – Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System Class was always a particularly dark obsession with Alfred Hitchcock. His British thrillers of the 1930s often depicted narrative antagonism and thematic oppositions in terms of social hierarchies. In his American noirs beginning in the 1940s, he often leaves class issues hanging, literally suspended or in danger from high places, especially monuments and public spaces, as though class were always a suspended dilemma of American culture. For the Hitchcockian noir hero, class was a barrier to be crossed, a new American frontier to be subdued. Highbrow culture flourishes in conspicuous extravagance of wealth that divides haves from have-nots, as well as in the egotistical pleasure of looking down upon others – a privileged distance, segregated, aloof, and wholly undemocratic. The Hitchcockian noir enacts this dichotomy visually with vertical and horizontal axes that denote class distinctions and with illusion of depth comments upon the delusion of class separation. Noir, then, for Hitchcock is an aesthetic of class that synthesizes genre and style to create a visual critique of the darker side of American culture. Hitchcock's contributions to film noir developed from his own marginalized class origins. From his school days, through his artistic apprenticeship, to his move to Hollywood, Hitchcock understood that social conditions for class were not simply determined by ancient rites of heritage. In his early British films, he translated familiar, even stereotypical class gestures, manners, and movements into his mise-en-scène in order to expose, often satirically, the drawbacks to a system of social hierarchies. America offered Hitchcock an opportunity, both economically and artistically, to explore the visual and narrative dimensions of high- and lowbrow allegories of social rank within modern democracy. It is, then, essential to differentiate Hitchcock's émigré British films from his American noirs, among them: Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1945), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), The Wrong Man (1956), and his final American noir, Psycho (1960).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Alfred Hitchcock
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781316227756
ISBN (Print)9781107107571
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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